Writer turns wasteland into a creative frontier

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2005, 12:00am

When Zhang Xianliang was serving time in a mainland labour camp, every possession was useful: a tattered piece of cloth, a small glass bottle and the pen he used to keep the diary that would become one of his best-known books.

Now, the famed writer types his novels on a computer, races a BMW sports car and watches satellite television at his isolated residential compound not far from the work farm where he once toiled outside Yinchuan city in the far western region of Ningxia .

Rising out of the arid wasteland, like a mirage, is one of Zhang's continuing projects: a movie studio that has provided the sets for 80 films ranging from director Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum to Hong Kong actor and director Stephen Chow Sing-chi's A Chinese Odyssey series.

His 'movie city', formally set up in 1993, attracts productions from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which use the remains of Ming and Qing dynasty military forts on the site.

The author, now 68, is still critical of the government that made him a 'reform-through-labour' convict, but the feelings have been tempered by the changes that bestowed literary fame and turned him into a successful entrepreneur.

'The Chinese Communist Party was very strange at the time,' Zhang said, referring to his arrest in 1958 for writing a poem.

'They arrested the people who had been participating in the revolution for years and put them in labour camps. It was like the party went crazy.'

He was in and out of the prison system for more than 20 years, from the 'anti-rightist' campaign in the late 1950s through to the Cultural Revolution, before his rehabilitation in 1979.

The experience gave him the basis for many of his books, including Grass Soup, which is about life in a labour camp. The book has drawn comparisons to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's writings about the Soviet gulag and Primo Levi's account of Nazi work camps.

'Gradually, only two things of any importance remained in my life: eating grass soup and breathing,' Zhang wrote.

The book describes how prisoners struggled to keep their humanity in the face of starvation and repeated political campaigns.

Smoking 555 brand cigarettes and sipping tea throughout a recent interview, the spirited author explained why he chose to remain in a country which offered such treatment.

'If the party was still like before, I would have definitely fled,' he said.

One of his best-known books is his 1985 novel Half of Man is Woman, about an intellectual who spent time in a labour camp. The book's sexual themes made it the forerunner of more explicit works like Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby.

Zhang likened the current brand of 'bedroom dramas' to fast food but still praised them. 'You can't say McDonald's isn't food,' he said.

As today's writers win greater freedom and commercial success, the impact of the 'scar literature' genre for which Zhang is known grows less. But he is confident his works will stand the test of time.

'How were we able to emerge so quickly nationwide and have international influence in the late 1970s and early 1980s? At that time, common people made writers the mouthpieces for their thoughts. It wasn't normal.'

He is now working on a novel about five generations of a family spanning more than 100 years.

Separated from his wife, Zhang writes at all hours and entertains directors, actors and starlets shooting movies nearby.

'I get up at 9am or 10am. No one controls me now. I make my work into fun.'